For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here
As I enjoy another day off, this time in Porterville, you’d be correct in thinking that I seem to be resting more than cycling recently. In fact I’ve only pedaled a measly 391 miles since leaving San Francisco on December 21st and 130 odd of those have been in the last three days. This is largely on account of some crippling lower back pain that I have been trying to overcome with rest. It should also be born in mind that this time period includes my holiday up in Yosemite, an icy environment that wasn’t particularly conducive to getting on the bike and riding.
After declaring at the start of my last post that I was delaying my departure from Yosemite indefinitely, I ended up leaving the very next day. After it rained that evening and dropped a swamping of heavy snowflakes on us all night, I woke up the next day to the feeling that it was time to leave. The New Year buzz had died and it became clear I wasn’t going to be able to cycle out anytime soon. Luckily I had an offer from my new L.A. friends (Paul, Jeanette, Mark and Anna) of a lift out of the Park. Having fortuitously left his bike rack on the top of his car, Paul was able to take Shermy as I rode with Mark and Anna. Road conditions prevented us taking Hwy 41 south out of Yosemite so we retraced my previous steps into Mariposa from which my eventual destination, Oakhurst, was only 26 miles down the road. These miles mark the first that I have traveled south by means other than my own pedaling, not something I’ll lose sleep over. It was a miserable day and as we ducked below the snow line and the flakes became drops, I was glad of the cosy car and conversation. The L.A. crew managed to hoist themselves up to the premier league of my ‘Guardian Angels’ table by really taking me under their wings, treating me to food and hospitality in the Park and then selflessly going out of their way to take me to Oakhurst. Bad weather and subsequent road closures meant that they wouldn’t return home until after 2am that night, not the ideal preparation for a post New Years return to work.
Oakhurst is a lovely little town. The southern gateway to Yosemite, it exhibits the obvious signs of these passive tourist dollars. The old town has been swamped by Subways, TacoBells and McDonalds as is the case with most thriving US towns, yet at this time of year it still retains a sleepy ambiance. My business in this town were a father and son combo, George and Stan Smith, who I had contacted through Warmshowers and who had kindly agreed to provide me a roof and bed for a couple of days. As my back continued to restrict my movements and unforseen activities began to fill the days I would end up staying with them for five days. Not enough time for my back to recover but a useful period nonetheless.
All Warmshowers hosts I’ve met have been interesting and inspiring but George and Stan were a real fit, something clicked for me. It could have been the golf course and swimming pool in their grounds, but no, as I used neither, it could have been a straight forward gratitude to no longer being in a wet snowed up tent, but it wasn’t, it was plain and simple appreciation for warm hospitality from respectful characters. George, a man in his eighties and experienced cycle tourist holds himself with a dignity that demands respect, while Stan is that all too rare creature… an American with a British sense of humour. I enjoyed Stans company, his cutting with and stories from decades of travel. I also enjoyed the fact he dismantled my front hub, replacing the cones and bearings in an attempt to resolve a clicking noise that’s driving me around the bend.
My rest up and recuperation time in Oakhurst was certainly not spent sat on my arse praying for the resolution of back pain. Instead, there was a bit of that interspersed with enjoying the place and people while proactively trying to get to the bottom (literally) of my pain. In between the usual necessary bike maintenance (all of which failed to rid me of that bloody clicking sound), writing emails, watching the mighty Pool over the internet and a trip back into Yosemite National Park to Badgers Pass ski area, I had a couple of firsts.
The first of my firsts was related to my physical problems. I wanted to get a massage as I figured it would help realign my cold battered body and hoped it would go someway to stretching out my ITB’s and Piriformis muscles that I supposed were the cause of my back pain. A chance meeting with a customer in the local bike shop put me onto artist and Rolfer, Rivka. When I phoned her up an explained my problems and journey a chord was struck and I ended up with a fantastic deal: her and her friend Bryce working on me together for two hours. After a fifteen year devotion to meditation, Bryce turned out to be as interesting and inspiring character as Rivka so it was a privilege to have them both work on me. I’ve never had two pairs of hands work my body and at first found it confusing as there was too much going on to allow clear focus. After time I gave in and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was a great massage and although not ridding me of the back pain, it was worth the money for the experience and to meet these two fascinating individuals. The rest of my body was thankful for the pummeling and Rivka and Bryce went a long way to confirming my Piriformis muscles as the main area of tightness. I have since been self treating by sitting on a tennis ball in an attempt to ‘iron-out’ those muscles. An agonisingly painful course of action that seems to be paying dividends.
One evening Stan introduced me to his biker buddy Mark and his wife Betsy. From here evolved my second first. Betsy is a teacher at the local school, Yosemite High School and invited me to come in and talk to a couple of her classes. I was genuinely excited by the opportunity to share my experiences while at the same time getting to meet a demographic with which I have absolutely no association. So it came to be that at 8:00 on the morning of January 6th I rolled my fully loaded and annoyingly clicking bike into Mrs Blums Geography class. A full class of 14 to 16 year olds are by definition going to take a bit of time to warm up at that time of the morning but it seems that I managed to muster some interest from most of them with my alternative life choice. My first question to the assembled masses was ‘Where do you think I am from?”. A young lady duly put her hand up and informed me once again that I was Australian. Once over this initial blip and trying to focus attention on the geography involved in my trip I really enjoyed talking about my experiences. As I spoke I had some of my photographs of the trip so far rolling on a screen behind me; although only eight months into the trip, my time in Alaska is starting to seem a long way away. Since May my mind has opened, my upper body withered and my face weathered. The aesthetics of experience are gradually starting usurp the efforts of vanity.
The Geography class was followed by a slightly more sprightly bunch of historians with which I was able to blabber on about the British Empire, a subject that in actual fact means very little to me but one that resurfaces time and again as I enjoy poking fun at North Americans. Both classes were full of what I suppose you could call ‘good kids’ who were interested in me as an Englishman as much as me the cycle tourist. I don’t have a natural affinity with youngsters, but these guys certainly went a way to opening my mind to them as people and personalities. I would agree to giving more ‘lectures’ in a heartbeat… but I’d never be a teacher.
Four mornings ago Stan (or it may have been the embodiment of my conscience) burst into my room and declared it was time for me to leave. That day I stocked up with food, trued my bike wheels and generally prepared to get back on the bike. After an evening meal with Mark and Betsy and some work on my back in their hot tub I was ready the next morning to pack up and leave. Hauling my aching body back onto the bike I exchanged farewells with my new friends and cycled out of Oakhurst under a fresh and bright sky.
The plan was to take it easy and gradually reintroduce my ailing frame to the rigors of cycle touring. This plan was difficult to stick by as I had to pump my way up several hills to get out of Oakhurst and towards Auberry. Camped up in my new tent (Hilleberg have loaned me a new outer tent as they try to fix the door on mine) on top of a cold and foggy hill three miles short of Auberry I reflected on 3,500 feet of climbing in little over 28 miles. Not what I’d planned. The next day was a little easier as I dropped down into the foggy cold valley. Once in the valley the roads became flat and straight and the surrounding land agricultural. Luckily all bar a few of the dogs I encountered were either leashed or fenced. I had a few chase me but am becoming ever more adept at drawing my bearspray. I’ve not had to use it yet but am certainly more than willing to give any canine who crosses the line a good blasting of pepper spray.
With 50 miles up in the day and nothing surrounding me but flat and featureless farmland ruled over by blood thirsty guard dogs, the prospects for stealth camping looked bleak. I figured it was the perfect opportunity for another first. So when I spotted a chap out in his front yard I asked whether he had a small plot of land I could pitch up on that night. He didn’t but an old lady down the road had a plum orchard I could camp in. Although initially guarded and a bit concerned at my appearance, as I talked with her I could see her visibly relax and thaw; maybe the bike, perhaps the smile, possibly the charm, whatever it was it was easy and led to a relaxing nights sleep. I did feel a bit cheeky digging a squatting hole under her plum trees but I’m sure they’ll enjoy the extra nutrients.
Yesterday the fog finally burnt off revealing a welcoming Californian sun. As I pushed on through the orange groves, gradually shedding my winter layers, my thirst for cycling returned in force. Having been bogged down with preoccupation, pain and cold for the last couple of weeks I felt the weight lift and a determination for progress return. A lunchtime stroll down a sunny Visalia Main street with rag time classics blaring out over the loudspeakers invited me into the California I had expected. And although uninspiring riding, the wind in my beard and the miles on my odometer welcomed me back to the bike.
As I charged down Hwy 65 towards Porterville I was met by a maniacly waving mustachioed man. Good fortune would have it that Hank, my Warmshowers host for a couple of nights had been passing and spotted me. If he hadn’t been there at that time I would have had a massive detour to make back out of Porterville to get to his house. Maybe my old friend Karma coming back to play. Anyhow, unsurprised to find Hank another interesting character I am in his house in Porterville enjoying my day off. Today I am resting my body for tomorrow I start moving East over the Sierra Nevada mountains via Walker Pass and Isabella Lake and towards the desert. I shall pedal north and drop down into Death Valley which I shall follow south until I pop out the bottom and move East to Las Vegas.
Tomorrow I stop being a simple traveller for the time being and once again become a cycle tourist. Armed with a fully functional tent, clicking bike and increasingly able back, there shall be no rest till Vegas. Wish me luck as I cycle through the valley of Death, where Rattle Snakes will take the place of Bears and my eyes will open on another landscape unlike anything I’ve seen before.